Professions of Kurdish solidarity are not hard to come by on the Turkish side of the border.
The proximity is striking. Nusaybin, a Turkish town of about 80,000, sits on one side of the border. Qamishli, one of the biggest cities in northeast Syria, is on the other. A thin strip of land – fields, watchtowers and rows of barbed wire – is all that lies in between. “We’re like one town separated by a fence,” Nusaybin’s Mayor Ayse Gokkan says, her third-story office overlooking the border area.
Nusaybin, like most cities in southeast Turkey, is predominantly Kurdish, as is Qamishli. Cross-border marriages are common, and most people on one side have at least a few relatives on the other. The towns’ economies are intertwined – or used to be, until the Syrian government decided to close the border crossing three months ago.
Qamishli, though it has seen large protests since the beginning of the year-old revolution against the Syrian regime, has not suffered the kind of violence witnessed in Homs, Hama or Idlib. If and when it does, Gokkan promises, Nusaybin will be ready to help: the municipality has reached an agreement with local tribal chiefs to set aside 150 houses to receive fleeing Syrians. “We have experience with these kinds of things,” says Gokkan. In the early 1990s, at the height of the war between the Turkish state and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Nusaybin residents opened their doors to Kurdish villagers fleeing scorched-earth attacks by the Turkish army. The conflict, which began with a PKK insurgency in 1984, has claimed 40,000 lives to date. Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union have labeled the PKK a terrorist organization.
Professions of Kurdish solidarity are not hard to come by on the Turkish side of the border. “History and politics divided the Kurds into four, but we are one people,” says Gokkan. Turkey alone is home to 12 million to 15 million Kurds; Iran and Iraq to millions more. At least 2 million Kurds live in Syria, comprising 10% of the country’s population. “We’ve learned that the Kurds cannot rely on anyone else,” the mayor says.
But solidarity goes only so far. At the Turkish town’s March 20 rally to celebrate Newroz, the traditional Kurdish New Year, speeches by Gokkan and other politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) feature one or two shout-outs to the fellow Kurds over in the Syrian side, in Qamishli, but there are few direct references to their revolution. The main villain in Nusaybin is the Turkish state, not the Syrian one; the main enemy is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Perhaps most crucially, there’s also the PKK. To most residents of Nusaybin, the organization is a champion of Kurdish rights, a symbol of resistance to decades of assimilationist politics and oppression at the hands of the Turkish state. However, to many of their cousins across the border, the group, whatever its record in Turkey, has become something else – one of the Assad regime’s allies, if not an actual agent in the repression of antiregime sentiment among the Kurds of Syria.
As a recent study by the Henry Jackson Society, a British-based think tank, concludes, the PKK and Damascus, united by their hostility toward Turkey, have been engaged in “tactical cooperation.” The PKK, according to the report, has helped the regime put down protests in Kurdish areas of Syria by “silencing other anti-regime opposition groups through violence.”
“The PKK oppose any demonstration that opposes Bashar; they threaten to kill people,” says Ibrahim, a young man who fled Qamishli this February. “Also, they have free movement. They set up checkpoints. They found Kurdish language and culture schools across Syria. You cannot do any of that without working with the government.”
A confidential Baath-party strategy paper recently leaked to al-Jazeera TV by a Syrian defector appears to lend credibility to such claims. Outlining a number of steps to deal with the unrest in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, the document allegedly recommends the following: “to place Kurdish areas under surveillance; and to coordinate with the Kurdistan Labour Party [PKK] in secret to quell protests and protesters.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that Damascus and PKK have entered a marriage of convenience. Throughout the 1990s, the Syrians hosted the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, providing his fighters with access to training camps in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley and on the border with Turkey. It was only in late 1998, after Turkey threatened to invade Syria, that the regime sent Ocalan packing. (He was captured several months later and is now serving a life sentence in Turkey.) Over the subsequent decade, as Turkey’s relations with Syria improved, Damascus began to crack down heavily against the PKK. According to Sertac Bucak, a former head of a minor Kurdish political party and a founding member of the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research, the rebellion against Assad’s rule brought the process to a halt. Turkey’s decision to side with the Syrian rebels convinced Assad to reverse the policy completely and once more embrace the PKK, says Bucak.
The PYD, the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, has vehemently denied reports of collusion with Assad. Such allegations, it has claimed, are part of a Turkish-led disinformation campaign. In an interview posted on its website, the group’s leader Salih Muslim Muhammad claimed, “Clearly and explicitly we condemn the Baath authoritarian ruler and we call for the fall of the mono [sic] Baathist regime.” A PKK spokesperson contacted by TIME did not reply to questions about the group’s stance vis-à-vis the Assad government.
Aware that Syria’s Kurds may well hold the key to the success of the rebellion against his rule, Bashar has been doing his utmost to appease them, or at least to ensure that they remain on the sidelines. Last year, the Syrian dictator offered to grant citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds descended from families who escaped Turkey after a series of brutally suppressed uprisings. His regime is also said to have also ordered its security forces to exercise restraint in suppressing Kurdish protests.
“Some of my friends in Qamishli are upset that government doesn’t confront them,” says Alan Hassaf, an activist who fled Syria two months ago. “They tell me, ‘We go to the streets, we protest, we shout slogans against Assad. The regime attacks us, they use tear gas, sometimes they shoot at us, but not like in Homs, not like in Idlib. Why aren’t they killing us?'”
The regime may be doing so – but selectively. On Oct. 7 last year, Mashaal Tammo, a prominent Kurdish activist who had openly called for the overthrow of the Assad regime, was gunned down inside his home in Qamishli. The following day, Luqman Sulayman, a political ally of Tammo’s, received a phone call. A voice in Arabic said, “You will be next.” A week later, someone smashed the windows of his house. Fearing for his life, Sulayman escaped to Turkey.
Dressed in a jacket, black turtleneck and green cotton trousers, with a graying goatee and a pair of dark-rimmed reading glasses to match, Sulayman, who is in his mid-40s, seems out of place in his new surroundings. His home, today and for the past few months, is a dingy one-room flat on the outskirts of Nusaybin. The furnishings are sparse: a pair of mattresses, a small TV, a laptop and an electric heater. Packs of Gauloises cigarettes lie scattered across the carpet. A single dried rose rests atop the television set. Another pair dangles from a small jar suspended above Sulayman’s bed. From there, Sulayman helps coordinate efforts to smuggle electronic equipment, including cameras, flash sticks and laptops, to the Kurdish opposition in Syria. He is logged in to Skype most of the day, making calls to friends and fellow activists in Europe, collecting funds, contracting smugglers, and posting videos of protests in Qamishli on YouTube.
I ask why Sulayman has decided not to look for support among locals. “I’m afraid to build a relationship with the Kurds here, since many of them have relations with the PKK,” he says. “Also, I’m afraid that the Turkish state would take an interest in me and that I would be sent back to Syria. We haven’t asked for support, but Kurds I know here haven’t offered any either.”
It is a general fear among fellow expatriates from Qamishli. “Everything here happens through the PKK, and that’s why people don’t organize themselves [to provide more support to the Syrian Kurds],” Ibrahim tells me. “They can’t, not without a green light from the PKK.”
Much as mainstream Kurdish politicians in Turkey might personally sympathize with the anti-Assad protesters, “their hands are tied by the PKK’s position on the entire revolution in Syria,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish columnist. As a result, she adds, they find themselves on shaky moral ground, claiming to represent a downtrodden minority in Turkey but giving little political support to their neighbors.
At Ayse Gokkan’s office, a flat-screen TV flashes images of street battles between Turkish police and protesters during the Kurdish New Year celebrations across Turkey. (In Nusaybin itself, clashes broke out after Kurds marching back from a rally outside the city were met with tear gas and water cannons.) The mayor will tackle certain questions: Erdogan is fair game, and so is Assad, but those about the Syrian PKK and its relation with the regime in Damascus are a nonstarter. The mayor bats away a few of them, before adding: “Every Kurdish party in every country has the right to take its own decision in accordance with the situation.”
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